November 9, 2023 | Townhall

The United States Should Unambiguously Embrace Our Kurdish Partners

November 9, 2023 | Townhall

The United States Should Unambiguously Embrace Our Kurdish Partners

Since the United States took the bold decision to partner with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in 2015, our NATO ally Turkey has accused us of working with (what it perceives to be) “terrorists.” In the opinion of Turkey’s President Erdogan, you cannot fight terrorism by collaborating with terrorists. No problem-except the SDF are not terrorists. 

The U.S. partnership with the Syrian Kurds has been the most effective means of not only degrading the Islamic State (ISIS), but also preventing its potential resurgence, since major combat operations against the entity declined. Even today, SDF forces carry out a vital missions, by continuing to target remnants of ISIS forces, as well as guarding ISIS prisons in Syria, that house some of the world’s most dangerous jihadists. Ankara wants to eliminate the SDF, due to its ideological links to its Turkish parent organization: the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK)- a U.S. and European Union (EU) designated terrorist organization. We must make it clear to Ankara that we stand behind our SDF partners. Why?

Because the SDF have consistently put themselves in harm’s way and acted like a trusted ally, which the US government doesn’t dare to formally acknowledge, fearful to incite Turkey’s anger. Although the SDF does have historical ties to the PKK and continuing affection for its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, the organization has never threatened or directly attacked Turkey, nor does it harbor any intention to do so. It does not have any desires on appropriating Turkish land, and maintains no desire to wage a war against Turkey for any reason. 

Unlike the PKK proper, the SDF has steadfastly pursued two goals: to find a way for Kurds to survive in Assad’s Syria and to defeat ISIS. In open forums, Turkish diplomats would push back forcefully against this narrative and they do at every bilateral meeting with the United States. Privately however, many agree with this perspective, and admit that they only designate the SDF as ‘terrorists’, because of Erdogan’s incessant desire to manufacture an enemy. 

The US government must put an end to the practice of being embarrassed to praise its substantive relationship with our Kurdish partners. Kurdish fighters in Syria and Iraq have put themselves on the frontlines of fighting ISIS, when the US was unwilling. They have helped the US and the western hemisphere achieve vital security interests that has surely earned them to right to be proudly referred to as our “allies.” What has Erdogan done?

Until 2013, Erdogan met with the leadership of the Syrian Kurds and did not brand them as terrorists. Salih Muslum, visited Ankara many times, and met with Erdogan many times. However, Erdogan turned on a dime to designate the Syrian political movement as a terrorist entity at the same time he abandoned pursuing a political solution to the Kurdish question at home in 2015. Why? Facing a challenging 2015 election cycle, Erdogan decided that there were more votes to be gained by abandoning the Kurdish peace process by re-securitizing the issue. By equating the Kurdish cause- in and outside of Turkey as one of terrorism, Erdogan succeeded in wooing Turkish voters for a fourth term in office.

Since then, he has not missed a moment to carry out numerous military operations against Kurdish targets in Iraq and Syria. Turkey militarily backs jihadist entities in northern Syria, that are direct offshoots of Al-Qaeda, whose sole purpose is to target SDF forces, who continue to fight ISIS. Since Hamas carried out its October 7 terror attacks in southern Israel, Erdogan has taken the opportunity to strike Kurdish targets in the region (civilian and military), while world attention has understandably been focused on Israel.

Erdogan would have us believe that the Turkish military’s relentless attacks on Kurdish targets-to include hospitals and other civilian infrastructure is part of a counterterrorism mission. It is not. It is designed to punish Kurds for simply being Kurds. Many Turkish citizens will find this difficult to accept, but the SDF is not a security threat to Turkey. While vilifying them on a daily basis, let us not forget that Turkey continues to provide safe harbor to Hamas in Turkey, which is the second largest base for the organization outside of Gaza. Its senior leadership have been given sanctuary and Turkish passports, allowing them to travel unrestricted.

In knowing all this, why does Washington remain seemingly embarrassed to support their Kurdish partners and not ask Ankara, to stop aiding and abetting Hamas-a group whom we know to be the real terrorist threat? Nobody knows.  

Sinan Ciddi is a non-resident senior fellow at FDD and an expert on Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy.


Al Qaeda Jihadism Kurds Syria Turkey